4-1BB ligation co-stimulates T cell activation, and agonistic antibodies have entered clinical trials. Natural killer (NK) cells also express 4-1BB following activation and are implicated in the anti-tumour efficacy of 4-1BB stimulation in mice; however, the response of human NK cells to 4-1BB stimulation is not clearly defined. Stimulation of non-adherent PBMC with OVCAR-3 cells expressing 4-1BB ligand (4-1BBL) or IL-12 resulted in preferential expansion of the NK cell population, while the combination 4-1BBL + IL-12 was superior for the activation and proliferation of functional NK cells from healthy donors and patients with renal cell or ovarian carcinoma, supporting long-term (21 day) NK cell proliferation. The expanded NK cells are predominantly CD56(bright), and we show that isolated CD56(dim)CD16(+) NK cells can switch to a CD56(bright)CD16(-) phenotype and proliferate in response to 4-1BBL + IL-12. Whereas 4-1BB upregulation on NK cells in response to 4-1BBL required 'help' from other PBMC, it could be induced on isolated NK cells by IL-12, but only in the presence of target (OVCAR-3) cells. Following primary stimulation with OVCAR-3 cells expressing 4-1BBL + IL-12 and subsequent resting until day 21, NK cells remained predominantly CD56(bright) and retained both high cytotoxic capability against K562 targets and enhanced ability to produce IFNγ relative to NK cells in PBMC. These data support the concept that NK cells could contribute to anti-tumour activity of 4-1BB agonists in humans and suggest that combining 4-1BB-stimulation with IL-12 could be beneficial for ex vivo or in vivo expansion and activation of NK cells for cancer immunotherapy.